EU election success for French far-right and Greens – but we've been here before
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France’s far-right National Rally took the largest share of votes in the country’s EU Parliament election on Sunday, with the Green party surging to third place. But such results are consistent with previous EU elections and the vote marked no great loss for President Emmanuel Macron.
Final results showed the National Rally (RN) took 23.31 percent of the vote, less than one point over the 22.41 percent for the Renaissance coalition that included Macron’s party, the Republic on the Move.
While the result allowed the party of Marine Le Pen to claim victory over Macron, it does not mark a particular gain over the party’s performance in the last European election of 2014, when it still went by the name National Front.
The party actually took less of a share of the vote than the 24.86 percent it registered five years ago. Overall turnout was higher in 2019, and the RN did see its actual number of voters increase from 4,712,461 five years ago to 5,281,745 on Sunday.
What the result does show was that the party has been able to rely consistently on a solid base of support, even if it is not enough to win national presidential or parliamentary elections.
“For the past five years, they have been at more than 20 percent in every election,” said Bruno Jeanbart, deputy director of polling institute Opinionway.
“They still have difficulties winning two-round elections and winning majorities, but they are now a very strong political force in the country, as we see in many kinds of countries with this kind of movement.”
Strategic victory for Macron and Le Pen
Le Pen’s party might have hoped to do better against Macron, who has been in office for two years and who has had to face down the long and sometimes violent anti-government Yellow Vest protests over the past six months.
But after a campaign that each camp sought to frame as a two-horse race between pro-EU progressives and eurosceptic nationalists, the closeness of the result marks a common strategic victory, especially for Macron, who can count on better results in the second rounds of national votes, including presidential elections.
“Macron’s party was quite close [to the RN], and was scared of having a lower result,” Jeanbart said.
“The fact that they are far ahead of the third party, the Green party, gives them the impression they have succeeded in defining French politics as a fight between the nationalist movement of Marine Le Pen and the progressive movement of Emmanuel Macron.”
Greens repeat previous successes
France’s Green party, EELV, took the third position in rankings with 13.47 percent of the vote, outdistancing traditional left and right-wing parties that were far from breaking into double-digit results.
“It’s not so surprising, because the European elections are the best elections for the Green party,” Jeanbart said, recalling the Greens took 16 percent of votes in the 2009 European poll.
“We have to be careful with this result, because every time they succeed in the European election, they are unable to redo the result in a national election, like a presidential or general election.”
Factors such as environmental questions entering the debate towards the end of the campaign, a series of climate marches and awareness campaigns and divisions among left-wing groups most likely contributed to the Greens’ result.
“They were able to catch part of the traditional Socialist voters, some of the radical left voters of [France Unbowed leader Jean-Luc] Mélenchon and some centre-left voters who voted for Macron in 2017, to build their success,” Jeanbart said.
Scepticism over EU-wide waves
Green parties and far-right populist parties performed well in other EU member states, but not exclusively, making it difficult to speak of real pan-European waves of support for either trend across the board.
“We don’t see emerging Green parties everywhere in Europe,” Jeanbart said. “It seems in some countries it was pretty strong, and it’s clear this was the case in Germany,” where the Greens took 20.50 percent of the vote.
“But it Germany it has always been a strong party, more than in France, and in Germany they also succeed in having high levels of votes in general elections.”
Likewise, despite gains for some far-right parties, notably the League party of Matteo Salvini in Italy, poor and mitigated performances in other countries suggest the EU has not been swept up in a wave of populist nationalism.
“It’s clear than the trend of eurosceptic parties from the right are increasing, but it seems quite impossible to say that it’s the same movement. There are also countries where they had pretty disappointing levels of results,” Jeanbart noted, citing Vox in Spain and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands.